Great Lakes Explorers

Latest update May 6, 2019 Started on October 15, 2018

Our expedition's mission is to act as planetary stewards around our school and in our community. We are part of the Great Lakes watershed and know what a precious resource we have connected to our community through the Oconto River.

October 15, 2018
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In The Field

Mural Progress

After planning and preparing, students began painting our hexagon project mural today which will be displayed in our recess area with a new pollinator garden. Cultivating stewardship in our school and natural communities.

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Expedition to Sensiba Wildlife Sanctuary and Point Beach State Forest

On Monday, May 6th we explored our local wetlands and dune habitats, listening and looking for migrating birds and cultivating our Explorer Mindset. Working with National Geographic Explorer Ben Mirin and local naturalist Stephanie Feuerstein, learners trudged through rain-soaked terrain to create sound maps in a remote area and used binoculars to hone visual observation skills. Highlighting our day of field studies, students were able to have an amplified listening experience through Ben's parabola and field equipment. Updates and more media from this authentic learning experience in exploration to come later.

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Survey Results

What an amazing last few weeks it has been! Our survey asking questions about attitudes about the Great Lakes reached over 800 individuals. Our 6th-grade students analyzed the results and summarized the information with a main idea; with many students concluding that there some gaps in our knowledge as stewards of the amazing global resource in our backyards. For example, only about 4% of respondents felt that they could explain how watersheds work and 60% did not know whether or not they live in the Great Lakes watershed. 20% of respondents know that there are dead zones in the Great Lakes, also demonstrating a need for more awareness. About 8% felt they could explain what a dead zone was to someone else with 53% selecting that they would have no clue how to explain it.

OpenROV News

We are very excited to share with that our expedition is supported by the S.E.E. initiative and received an OpenROV Trident drone to conduct research. In our next post, we will share plans for a schedule on when we will be conducting surveys throughout the spring, summer and fall!

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Questions Lead to More Questions

As reported in our last post...our sixth-grade class asked some great questions about dead zones. Thwarted by two snow days occurring on our club meeting dates, our plan to organize research of those questions has been delayed. However, during that time as those questions were still brewing---more questions popped up. What do others think about the Great Lakes? In general, how aware are people about the health and value of this resource? We're curious; so we developed a survey that we are going to try to circulate in the next few weeks and look forward to reporting out our results in another post.

If you live in the Great Lakes region, please take the survey here

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Part of my teacher training tells me to activate prior knowledge. This morning, then, as I was nearly jumping out of my shoes with excitement to be able to talk about dead zones in sixth grade English class, I eagerly asked them, "Have any of you heard about dead zones before...? What do you know about dead zones...?" Hands went up. Wow, they knew! Internally I was nodding to myself thinking, "Right, on!!" Soon I discovered, having no idea what kind of dead zone I was referring to, they were thinking we were going to be talking about dropped calls and lack of cellular service. Oops. Ok...cue the connection. Yes, a dead zone means a lack of something. But in this case we're talking about a lack of oxygen in water.

Activating Curiosity

We spent only about fifteen minutes learning about what dead zones are and how they are caused before students read an article about a local dead zone in the bay of Green Bay. I was so impressed with the questions that came from this short introduction:

How has the dead zone in Green Bay changed over time? Do dead zones move? If not, why doesn’t it move? Why doesn’t the oxygen come in from other spots? How has our local dead zone affected fish populations? How long do dead zones last? How does a dead zone affect different sizes of fish? How long does it take a dead zone to form? Can a dead zone harm humans? Will it affect you if you swim through it? How many dead zones are in the Great Lakes? In the world? Can you clean up the algae before it decomposes and sinks to prevent a dead zone from forming? Can dead zones spread? How does a dead zone affect the water beside it? How much oxygen is lost before it becomes a dead zone? How has the dead zone in Green Bay changed over time? Has anyone searched a dead zone? Are there any species that can live in a dead zone besides bacteria? Do dead zones affect drinking water in the Green Bay area?

What we'd like to discover through exploration

Excited by the prospect of being able to explore a dead zone, students wanted to know...

How much algae is packed up on the lake floor? What does a dead zone look like? Can we discover something to help the problem? How deep is the dead zone? Can we verify the size of the dead zone? Will we see dead fish or plants? What kinds? Can we monitor the changes year after year? What would it be like if we can compare the surface to the floor and other levels of the dead zone? How does the dead zone change over the summer? What kinds of bacteria break down the algae bloom and cause eutrophication in the Great Lakes? Can the bacteria be stopped?

The next steps in our preparation are to research answers (to what questions we can) and connect with local experts.

Photo from a 2012 mapping of the dead zone. Image source:


Dead Zone

As covered in the last post we are stewards of an amazing resource in our backyard, one of the Great Lakes: Lake Michigan. The last several years, Green Bay has been home to an undesirable occurrence: a dead zone. Green Bay Dead Zone Dead zones are a response of an overload of nutrients: run-off into the water that causes algal blooms, their inevitable decay, and the resulting eutrophication that occurs, depleting the area of oxygen. We want to explore our local dead zone in order to not only learn more about it and create awareness but to lead actions to help solve this problem.

Why the Great Lakes are Great

Like any really impressive story, to learn what makes the Great Lakes great, we have to go waaaay back in time; a couple million years when the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered Canada and part of the United States. Glaciers spawning from this ice sheet pushed soil and rocks from Canada down into our home state of Wisconsin, creating unique landforms: eskers, moraines, kettles and some fabulous topsoil (Thank you, Canada!) that nourished not only the plants and animals but burgeoning civilizations of First Nations tribes, and later farming European immigrants. Glaciers retreating also formed some basins...five really big ones that began filling with fresh glacial meltwater. At the completion of the melting of the glaciers, five unique, massive, impressive, beautiful bodies of water that make up the Great Lakes were formed. [nice animation on the Wisconsin SeaGrant website] (

Stewards of Water

Our school is located just over ten miles from one of them, Lake Michigan. The Oconto River, which runs through our town, spills into Lake Michigan, connecting us by watershed and every native and invasive species that make up our ecosystem. Connecting us also by the value of this abiotic, yet life-giving, precious resource that makes up so much of our area: water. Freshwater. On our Earth, 97% of our water is saline, ocean water. Of the 3% freshwater that we have, most is located in ice caps or groundwater. Only .3% of our total water is surface freshwater (lakes, swamps, rivers). This astounding fact will floor you: 20% of all of the surface freshwater on Earth is located in the Great Lakes. 20%. Simultaneously we are blessed by amazing resource a profound responsibility: to be stewards of this water. Nicknamed the Freshcoast, the Fourth Coast, and inland seas, The Great Lakes are worthy of all of those titles and more. Together they possess 9,500 miles of coast and 35,000 islands. But, perhaps most impressively, they make up the greatest freshwater system on Earth. As we look at our environmental club and how we can be stewards to our human and natural communities, we recognize and embrace our connectedness to the freshwater in our area; and know that not only does it sustain us, it is a resource of global importance.

Image sources: Wikipedia Commons

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Expedition Background

Environmental Club

We are a small group of teachers and students with the goal of making a difference in our human and natural community. We have begun designing a mural and a garden that will decorate our barren asphalt playground, not only making it more pleasing to the eye, but providing a growing (literally!) curriculum for hands-on outdoor studies and habitat for pollinators. We are also Broader than our own schoolyard, we are developing a pollinator garden in another area of our city. Our goals are to expand our studies to the Oconto River and Great Lakes watershed.


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